Some characters are so loved that they can last forever. One such character is Rupert Bear. Born on the pages of The Daily Express in 1920, he has graced the pages of the newspaper every issues since this time, taken off only three times since then for urgent news. Originally created and drawn by Mary Tourtel, the mantle of drawing him was taken over by Alfred Bestall in 1935, who gave him his iconic red jumper and tartan pants and scarf. He was originally a brown bear, but to save on printing costs, he became a white bear on the printed page, but still appears a bit tanned on the covers of his yearly annuals. He has had several TV series, a video game, appeared on postage stamps, in a music video with Paul McCartney, and there is even a Rupert museum in Cantebury, where Mary Tourtel was born.
I first encountered Rupert in the late 90s, when my grandparents gave me two Rupert annuals for Christmas. I must have reread them several times, as I can vividly remember so elements of the stories within them. Looking at them now, I realise that when reading them as a child, I never thought that I was reading a comic strip – which is essentially what Rupert is – because there are no speech bubbles inside the drawing boxes. There are two lines of rhyming text beneath each panel, and a longer stretch of text at the bottom of each page. This is interesting, as it means that the story can be read three ways – just pictures, or rhyming couplets, or the prose. It makes it very reader friendly. I admit that rereading it last week, I occasionally skipped reading the rhyming couplets, as they were just retelling the part of the story that I had already read in the prose.
When in Perth about a month ago, I found a couple of Rupert books in a second hand shop. I bought one titled ‘Rupert and the Greedy Princess‘, and although I can’t find a publication date in it, it looks like it is a reprint from a book Mary Tourtel wrote in 1935 – it must have been one of the last stories she wrote before handing the responsibility of Rupert over to Albert Bestall. The format of this book is different to the annuals I have from the 1990s – there is one panel per page, and two verses of four lines each. The story has a strong and very clear moral in it (relating to the greed of the princess – Rupert does absolutely nothing wrong in the whole story and looks after the princess) which does not appear (thankfully) in the later annuals.
But the common link between the two editions of Rupert stories, other than Rupert of course, is the surreal nature of the stories. In the annuals, Rupert travels to the Land of Dreams, to China (via an elevator), to the North Pole to visit Jack Frost, and through a mirror, and meets Bo Peep, a merman, Father Christmas, as well as all his anthropomorphic chums. In the story of the Greedy Princess, he is stolen from the town of Nutwood to entertain the Greedy Princess, and they are both kidnapped and, while attempting to find their way home, stumble across a house lived in by a witch and a gaggle of elves, who don’t feed the Princess properly and make her do all the housework until she slims down and stops being greedy (probably not the best story for a modern-day child).
Rupert is continuing to thrive, in an evolved form – in 2006 a new television series was created, where Rupert and his friends are created via CGI, and Rupert wears sneakers. He still appears every day on the pages of the Daily Express, and I hope he will continue to do so for a very very long time.
(NOTE: The book of 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up lists ‘Rupert the Bear’ or ‘The Adventures of Rupert the Little Lost Bear’, the original story of Rupert published in 1921, as one of the 1001 Children’s Books. However, I think the likelihood of me finding or being able to afford the first book of Rupert’s stories is close to nil, and therefore I have chosen to read other Rupert stories instead. I do not think this is to the detriment of my list, as it only goes to prove the strength of Rupert’s character (pun intended).